Four decades after the Grateful Dead and Timothy Leary made acid trips a counter-cultural rite of passage, Rick Doblin is trying to shake the drug's hippie image and reclaim its use as a medicine.
Doblin, who leads a group sponsoring the first study of LSD as a therapy in 36 years, says the new Swiss research may show the drug helps ease anxiety and pain in patients suffering from illnesses such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.
The research is a homecoming for LSD, which was created in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who died this week at the age of 102. The hallucinogen was banned in the 1960s, and detractors say Harvard psychology professor Leary's advice that people use LSD to ``turn on, tune in, drop out'' clashes with modern psychiatry. Doblin says lingering stereotypes stand in the way of tests that may show therapeutic uses.
``LSD is not a drug for the counter-culture,'' said Doblin, president of the Ben Lomond, California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. ``We're trying to take it out of politics and bring it back into mainstream science.''
Doblin's group focuses on developing beneficial uses of psychedelic drugs and marijuana. In addition to psychotherapeutic and physiological research, such uses may include ``spiritual exploration, creativity research, shamanic healing,'' according to the association's Web site.
Approval for the Swiss study, led by Peter Gasser, a psychiatrist in the canton of Solothurn, followed more than two years of deliberations, including reviews by the country's ethics body and medical regulators, said Marta Kunz, a spokeswoman for the Federal Office of Public Health.
The Swiss People's Party, which has criticized health office policies such as providing drug addicts with heroin on prescription, is looking for ways to block the study, spokesman Alain Hauert said in an e-mail.
``If international experts come to the conclusion that LSD can be seen as a medication, we would have another look at the situation,'' said Hauert, whose party is the largest in Switzerland. ``But for the moment our position is still a conservative one and doesn't allow such experiments.''
LSD can cause side effects ranging from sleeplessness to hallucinations. Users may also develop long-lasting psychoses or report flashbacks days or months after taking the drug, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In the U.S., the drug is illegal, and suppliers and users can do jail time. In 2003, a California man was sentenced to life imprisonment and a colleague got 30 years for making and distributing more than 10 grams of LSD.
In the Swiss study, 8 of 12 patients will be given 200 micrograms of LSD and four will receive a 20-microgram dose. The drug will be given during two psychotherapy sessions two to four weeks apart. Patients will get six to eight more psychotherapy sessions without LSD during the trials, which will last about 18 months. Researchers will assess the patients' anxiety and pain levels as well as their quality of life.
``For some patients who are under the supervision of trained psychotherapists, LSD can be helpful,'' Doblin said. ``We're not trying to say that kids can do LSD at parties.''
Parties are exactly what Carolyn Garcia, the ex-wife of the Grateful Dead's late frontman, Jerry Garcia, associates with LSD. She joined author Ken Kesey, who discovered LSD during U.S. government-sponsored studies, for ``acid tests'' that culminated in the 1966 Trips Festival in San Francisco.
``Howling chaos and jubilant participation ruled for three nights that changed the perception of what life could be for all who were there,'' Garcia, also known as ``Mountain Girl,'' said March 21 at the World Psychedelic Forum in Basel, where she appeared on a panel with Doblin.
Detachment from reality isn't a good way to address illness, said Ken Checinski, a fellow of the U.K.'s Royal College of Psychiatrists. New antidepressants and psychological techniques make LSD irrelevant to modern medicine, while the potential side effects and findings of previous studies don't justify renewed research, he said.
``Sometimes if patients take drugs such as LSD, they perceive benefit, maybe because they become detached from reality, but we all have to come back and live in the real world,'' Checinski said.
Supporters of the study say opponents have placed them in a Catch-22 by blocking research into beneficial uses of LSD because there's no evidence of its benefits.
Other such drugs are starting to make a comeback in research. Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, are testing psilocybin, the active ingredient in so- called magic mushrooms, to treat anxiety in patients with advanced cancer. MDMA, also known as ecstasy, is being studied in countries including the U.S., Switzerland and Israel in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Roots in Medicine
``LSD fell out of favor for social and political reasons and because so many people took it illegally, but these psychedelic substances started their life in medicine,'' said Ben Sessa, a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Early tests may not have shown potential benefits because of the ``variable quality'' of many of those studies, Sessa said. He argues the results nonetheless merit further investigation.
"The research that was started in the 1950s was never finished, so we need to look again at LSD without prejudice and purely as scientists," Sessa said. ``We need to adopt a dispassionate and evidence-based approach. There's no room for Timothy Learys.''
By Dermot Doherty